It’s 2:12 in the afternoon and I’m already drunk.
Jay, an aging airline pilot from Fort Lauderdale sitting next to me at the bar, has just told an off-color joke involving a gynecologist and a pizza chef that draws riotous laughter from Steve, a Nebraska native wearing a cowboy hat. The bartender, Richard, has just finished pouring me a beer and commenting on a girl’s ass. Looking past his shoulder, I spy a man pushing a shopping cart through the bakery aisle with a blue parrot perched on his shoulder.
This is not your typical dive bar, obviously, but rather a bar inside the Ralphs supermarket on Ninth Street downtown. It’s a little strange how I got here, drinking 4-ounce beer samples with Jay and Steve in a grocery store, but the basic breakdown is this: In the age of Instacart and Trader Joe's, traditional grocery stores have been doing their best to remain relevant and bring in new shoppers — and installing on-premise bars has been one step toward that goal. Gelson’s in Long Beach has a wine bar, the new Whole Foods bar in Playa Vista serves liquor, and the Ralphs stores downtown and in Westwood have brought boozy pit stops to the shopping experience.
In an effort to figure out what exactly was appealing about drinking in the place where you buy your canned soup and cat litter, I spent a couple of afternoons inside two of L.A.'s grocery store bars.
When I arrived at the bar (dubbed “Elevate”) in the Ralphs downtown, my dining options were whatever was sitting under heat lamps at the nearby hot-food counter. The bar’s decor resembled a doctor’s waiting room. It offered “beer flights,” but there are only six taps at the bar (one of which is a cider). But the flights (four 4-ounce servings) are only $4, so it ends up being a cheap pint split into four tiny glasses.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Whole Foods in Playa Vista is perhaps best described as “Disney World for White Yuppies.” Instead of $4 flights, the bar, named Astro Pub, offers a $12 “Build Your Own Old-Fashioned” menu. It stocks Jameson and Macallan and organic, fair-trade, quinoa vodka. It's decorated like a sleek Hollywood lounge and offers a full menu ranging from sushi to steak to seafood.
But once you get past their respective veneers, these supermarket bars both offer customers something that is quickly vanishing from L.A. street corners: a decent watering hole. As the city evolves, it's losing more and more of its fabled dives that locals hold in special regard — Bar 107, Power House, Dimples. These places specialize in welcoming strangers while catering to a crowd of regulars.
That’s the void these supermarket bars fill. A bar inside a grocery store gives people a place to let their hair down, wear sweatpants, order a beer and utter whatever bizarre statements/opinions come to mind.
Over the two days I spent drinking between the two grocery stores, conversations veered from how a member of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony likes to get drunk at the Ralphs downtown, to why gentrification is incredible for Los Angeles, to why gentrification is terrible for Los Angeles, to how Los Angeles women are impossible to connect with because you can’t “just ask them to go bowling,” to an incredibly boring story about helping Katy Perry buy a convertible.
Whether the conversation was introspective or chauvinistic or silly, every stranger I encountered was more than willing to chat with me. That was the most striking part of the supermarket bars — everyone was welcoming.
It turns out that the supermarket bars provide something just as essential as milk, bread and eggs: a casual, comfortable space to connect with your neighbors.